When the Rev. Jose Marquez, newly installed priest at Mary Queen of Peace Parish, talks to people who have fallen away from their faith, he doesn’t judge them.
He empathizes with them. It’s something he, too, has experienced.
Marquez, 54, started his tenure at the South Side parish on July 1. He came from St. Leo the Great Catholic Church in Lewistown.
Marquez, dressed in his clerical garb, is a balding, bespectacled man with a salt-and-pepper beard. He smiles often and his conversation is punctuated with laughter.
For an interview he sits in his office in the administrative offices next to what formerly was Little Flower Catholic Church.
Now three parishes — Little Flower, Our Lady of Guadalupe and Holy Rosary — have meshed into one church that meets at the former Little Flower building. He recognizes the challenges that merging presents to the people of the three churches.
“It is not easy; it’s traumatic,” Marquez said. “It’s kind of like telling three distinct families to live in one house, and then you’re telling them now you’re gong to be one family.”
Marquez is also aware that a good number of people from Holy Rosary and a few from Our Lady of Guadalupe have left for other Catholic churches in the wake of the consolidation. He hopes to reach out to them, to encourage them to air their grievances.
Maybe some will come back. Maybe not. He just wants them to know that he cares.
That’s what helped Marquez turn his spiritual life around. Someone offered him a lifeline back to his faith.
That part of his life fell apart when he was a youth. Marquez was born in Mexico and moved with his family to Los Angeles when he was 7 months old.
In 1972, when he was 12, his parents divorced, and he was forced to choose which parent to live with.
“Because of this question I couldn’t answer, I lost trust in my parents and in authority,” Marquez said. “I lost trust in general, but also with God. And so I didn’t want to go to church anymore.”
He decided to do his own thing. That meant getting involved with drugs and gangs.
Marquez managed to pull himself out of those bad choices, and he went to California Polytechnic State University in Pomona, where he earned a degree in aeronautical engineering. He worked part-time at McDonnell Douglas while in school and then was hired full-time after he graduated.
But he wasn’t happy.
“I felt empty inside,” Marquez said. “It was precisely how God called me to come back to the church, to discover who he is.”
He was invited to attend catechesis, a class on the Catholic faith, to understand the Bible and experience the presence of God. To his surprise, Marquez experienced “God as a loving father, a father who forgives, a father who is merciful, and the church as a mother.”
That opened the door for him to return to his Catholic roots, and it planted a seed that maybe God had a call for him. He took a one-month leave from McDonnell Douglas and accepted an invitation to travel to Minneapolis-St. Paul and Chicago on a mission trip to evangelize.
One month later, Marquez called his supervisor and told him he was not coming back. He kept on with the missionary work, then attended the World Youth Day in Denver in 1993.
There, Marquez heard Pope John Paul II exhort 500,000 youth not to be afraid to announce the Gospel.
“That kind of gave me the push to say ‘OK, I will go,’ ” Marquez said. “So I entered seminary that year.”
He attended seminary in Newark, N.J., and was ordained a priest for the Diocese of New Jersey in 1999. He served in parishes in the diocese until 2012, when the bishop called him in.
“He said I have good news for you, I am sending you to Montana,” Marquez said.
Bishop Michael Warfel, who heads the Diocese of Great Falls-Billings, assigned him to St. Leo, where he began work on Aug. 1, 2012. Then, earlier this year, Warfel asked him what he thought about moving to Mary Queen of Peace, in Billings.
“I told the bishop, ‘You’re the bishop, you tell me,’ ” he said, laughing. “So I said, ‘I’ll go wherever you want me to go.’ ”
Marquez started at the South Side church on July 1.
Warfel, in a telephone interview, said the priest’s ability to speak Spanish is a benefit. But that wasn’t his main reason for sending Marquez to the people of the Billings parish.
“They’re going through a lot of transition, so they needed the stability,” Warfel said. “That was very much at the heart of my offer.”
Rev. Paul Reichling retired more than two years ago, and then the Rev. Bart Stevens was transferred to St. Anthony’s Catholic Church in Laurel two years ago.
In his first weeks at Mary Queen of Peace, Marquez has celebrated Mass and also begun to acquaint himself with the hospitals and nursing homes where he goes to visit parishioners. He also plans to be credentialed to visit the Montana Women’s Prison and the county jail.
He’s looking forward to the future, to lead the effort to build a new church building on property that sits between 10th and 11th avenues and between south 27th and 28th streets.
But most of all, Marquez wants to meet the people of the parish, and meet their needs. He also wants to encourage others who have walked away from the church to reconsider their decision.
With his own history, he knows how a warm, friendly invitation can turn things around.
“My assignment here is to serve and to bring this encounter, for people to have an encounter with God, an encounter with Jesus,” Marquez said. “In the end we may have our life, like I had, with things, studies, career, but if this is not making you happy, what is the meaning of life?”
It’s to know God and his love, Marquez says.